Caution: Spoilers ahead. Read this only if you’ve watched the film.
Gully Boy is a rousing tale, but it’s easy to look at the broad outlines of the plot and dismiss it as Dharavi’s 8 Mile or some such thing. That would be doing the film a huge disservice. A genre exercise must not automatically be classed as generic; it deserves its place in the sun if the story is rooted in its milieu and respects both the setting and the characters while still hewing to the broad outlines. Much of what worked for me in Gully Boy were in fact the little things, the evidence of “craft”, the moments where Zoya found truth and beauty in places that most people would pass by without a second glance. And in this film, she has found herself a mighty team of collaborators who have executed on her vision in a manner that does the material credit.
To begin with, how good an actor is Ranveer Singh? There’s not a single thing I noticed that others haven’t raved about already, so let me not bother with it at all. Sometimes it’s easy to get a little bamboozled by his outfits off screen, but watch him in the film, and see how he reins in his flamboyance, and only slowly lets us see the energy within. Watch how his performances change, and how they build up to the unbridled energy of Apna Time Aayega. This is an extraordinarily well-calibrated performance.
The running time helps. This is a story of an artist discovering his voice, discovering that he is a person of worth. Zoya takes her time in showing us this process. The first thing you see about him is what he doesn’t like: rap music that is purely about a lifestyle rather than a point of view. Then you see his life, his environment, what he likes, where he finds space to breathe and grow. You see a man with talent, but no yardstick to measure his own worth — when he presents Doori to his mentor, watch how much he yearns for that iota of appreciation. Watch his comfort with a mic and with the recording process grow over time. You don’t get it all done through a lazy montage.
Alia Bhatt’s performance too is a thing of beauty. I would gladly pay money to watch a movie about Safeena “Danger Apa” Firdausi. To begin with, it’s a very well-written character, but so much hinges on her being able to find that exact tone, and Alia delivers. She gets a lot of big moments, a lot of crowd pleasing moments, and some beautiful ones with Ranveer (I think doing all those MakeMyTrip ads together really helped). My favourite, though, comes during his rousing solo performance right at the end. She’s sneaked out of her house to watch him, perform. You see her putting on lipstick while waiting for her train — something that is foreshadowed by a comment in an earlier conversation with her parents. And when she arrives at the venue, you see that she’s done her best to pretty up for her boyfriend’s big night, and that it still looks just that little bit different, just that little bit less practised, as compared to the women around her. And when the whole crowd is going nuts and waving their hands up and down, you see her doing it too. But her movement is just that little bit more awkward. This isn’t her world, but she’s there for him, and the film recognizes both aspects. You see this for literally just one second, and yet it registers. Incredible.
Bridges are a recurring leitmotif in their relationship. The one they meet on regularly, the sharing of a pair of earphones, their gesture with their hands… And it’s an appropriate leitmotif because, in their little world, they still have to bridge some gaps in order to be together. Even their relative position on the vertical axis is used thoughtfully.
There’s a reconciliation scene between the lovers late in the film. He’s had an intimate moment with another woman earlier, which she suspects but he doesn’t admit to. Her confrontation with him about this leads to their breakup. When they reconcile, she asks him about her and he says, they’re just friends who make music together. She still presses him with a gentle but firm “But…” — he has to come clean, it is important to her, to them. He does. When she says, “So it’s okay if I do that with someone as well?” he responds with “You can do whatever you want.” And they kiss. Don’t read the lines. Read between them. His response isn’t about reciprocity, it’s about freedom. There is an earlier conversation where he worries about the things he can’t give her, and she says that her ability to be herself with him is what matters to her. This conversation starts off about his little infidelity, but that last question and response is not about that. It is simply a reaffirmation of what is so right about their relationship.
But the film is not just about these two. It’s about the world they inhabit, about the characters around them, and these characters are written with respect for their lives.
His friends, for instance. Moeen stalks the screen like an apex predator, and in their little world, he kind of is. Murad disapproves of his actions, and they’ve had the odd tiff about it, but it comes to a head in a scene where he sees that Moeen is using local kids in his drug trade. That scene is set up to play out exactly like so many others in so many other movies, but the way it actually plays out is truer to the world the characters inhabit. Murad breaks down, and Moeen sends the other kids away and finds out what’s going on. Even his earlier conversation about Murad’s break-up with Safeena doesn’t adopt the “my friend is always right” tone — there’s some quiet truth-telling about what he owes his girlfriend.
The relationship between the rappers is another plus. MC Sher is outstanding as Murad’s mentor, of course, but what stood out for me is the positivity. You don’t have manufactured drama around a veteran feeling out of sorts at being bested by his protege. Even the rap battles are verbal pugilism, but you can see that they regard this as sport. Right at the end, when Murad performs at the final, even his rivals are nodding along — they respect the craft, the talent. (Which is why the big moment in the semi-final where he defends his roots against an “entitled” opponent, while crowd-pleasing, feels just that little bit false; the sentiment is true, but the situation feels a bit manufactured.)
It’s lovely how the music reflects the sensibilities of the characters driving the action. When Sky and her friends invite Murad for some late night vandalism, the music that plays over the scene isn’t hip-hop. It suggests a sort of genteel protest. One character doodles
“Feed me” on a picture of a fashion model. In their presence, Murad looks just that little bit awkward. What makes this scene work is really the context outside the film — Zoya’s Dil Dhadakne Do was panned for focusing on first world problems — and by placing a little window to that world inside Murad’s own, Zoya seems to slipping in a sly bit of commentary herself.
There’s so much detail even in throwaway moments. Like the way Murad’s new stepmom has a habit of leaving her plates and cups in the kitchen for his mom to wash, and how it is mirrored in the household she works in. (Again, all it takes is a second for a shot to linger on a particular thing for a good storyteller to tell a little story on the fringes.) Or the way one character slamming the door is reflected in another’s similar action in a late scene.
And finally, in a movie that is about an “English ki poetry zor zor se sunaane-wala” art form (thank you, Bombay 70, for that succinct description), the words. In a late scene, Murad says “I have a gift from God, and I don’t plan to return it.” Watch the word choice. He doesn’t use a word that suggests throwing away or wasting the gift, but returning it. Returning is an active measure, one that suggests an individual’s complicity in his own failure, and Murad will no longer have it. There’s also the scene where he describes his life without Safeena with an analogy that is so unexpected, yet so perfect. You realize that this ability to find the words even in a halting, awkward conversation is what makes him who he is as an artist. And his artistry reflects, in turn, that of the makers. Kudos!